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French Letter

Michael Kennedy - the tough-looking, soft-talking Rooster Head singer - has lost it, gone completely bonkers, out of his mind, deranged. The incident was captured on an audio tape recently obtained by New Times:

Kennedy: "They mock me. I know they mock me."
Unidentified voice: "No one's mocking you, Mr. Kennedy."
Kennedy: "I have risen from the ashes. I am
Rimbaud!"

At this point on the tape, the others in the room seem to be trying to calm Kennedy. But his voice grows louder, till he's screaming violently: "I am a poet...a poet...I've sprung from the ashes. You don't believe me, watch my feet." Several voices are heard saying, "Mr. Kennedy, Mr. Kennedy," but his outburst rages on with maniacal screams of "I AM A POET...AIEEEIGH...A POET I TELL YOU...." Someone can be heard ordering "ten milligrams of Haldol, stat."

The horrifying confrontation eventually gives way to a bouncy concertina-and-organ melody over which Kennedy gently sings. It's not a song, just a snippet with hook, and as the untitled minipiece fades, the orchestral held notes of "Glory Hole" float out of the speakers.

If you haven't realized it yet, you are now at the end of An American Cock in Paris, the soon-to-be-released follow-up to Rooster Head's mind-boggling debut album A Legendary Cock (currently in its second pressing). The band's sophomore effort confirms that Rooster Head is the best band in the world that's never played a live gig.

In this strange life, Head music is strangest of all, a startlingly mixed-up mix of penetrating insight spattered with the blood and guts of the players' souls, beneath which roils wickedly twisted humor.

"As far as the music goes, we're all dead serious," member Bob Wlos says. "The way we approach it, the way we did this album, except for the song `Sally,' is that Mike came in, strummed something on an acoustic, and me or Pete [Moss] took it from there. I'd say 99 percent of everything was done in one or two takes, so there are screw-ups in there. We were going for the feel, rather than perfection. If we liked the way it felt, even if it had a screwed-up guitar or the vocals weren't perfect, it got across what we wanted. We mixed the whole first album in six hours. This one took seven or eight hours. We went overboard on this one."

Wlos says he laughed after he first heard the words to "Glory Hole," the expansive single denounced by some as blasphemy. While Rooster Head could never be locked into any one specific "sound" - particularly considering the new material - "Glory Hole" stands as a dramatic departure. Inspired by the mindless moping and self-worship of Depeche Mode and other poseur, tech-dreck bands, the song's complex lyrical imagery is framed by sweeping keyboards; a monotonous drum thump beats like a heart throughout, various synth rhythms compete for space, a guitar solo careers wildly through the bridge. One would be pressed to even recognize it as Rooster Head.

Then again, nobody else would think to put such intriguing, bedeviling poetry to a dance instrumentation. In fact nobody else writes lyrics like this, period: "If you leave me, there'll be trouble/Kiss me goodbye but never leave/Kiss me deep/I'll give you what you need/Don't be fearful when I plant my seed."

"Glory Hole" is an anomaly, which is quite an accomplishment considering the diversity of Head's work. As with A Legendary Cock, the new album includes country music, neopsychedelia, retro pop-rock, and other stuff that has no name. The songs are so strong, the arrangements so inventive, the overall package so infectious and accessible that the best way to describe An American Cock in Paris is to call it Rooster Head music, and leave the crowing to rock crits.

Wlos owns and operates the highly regarded L-7 studio in Deerfield Beach, and the Roosters use his sonic toys and rock-oriented space as their personal musical playground. The boys have expanded beyond their highly effective guitar-bass-drums-pedal-steel format on the new album, adding bongos, sax, effects.

Flashbacks are also involved. "Black Girls and Saxes" - with profound piano lines (by guest Jaco Jacovino) and multicharacter storytelling - is similar to something from David Bowie's early albums. "I had gone out and bought the new reissues of [The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars] and Space Oddity," Kennedy explains. "So it was kind of an influence. For `Black Girls' anyway."

There is no saxophone on "Black Girls and Saxes," but in one lyric, Kennedy mentions "glory hole." On another cut, "Dancing with the Ghost (Marvin)," you find "a field of seven aces." On the other side is a track titled "Field of Seven Aces."  

And it's not just a matter of lyrical ghosting - which effectively ties these disparate songs together the way chapters do a novel - that brings the delight of cognition and recognition. Just figuring out how some of the sounds on the album were created is the sort of rewarding challenge that makes a piece of recorded music worth ten dollars, that makes it priceless. For example, the perfectly placed fretboard scrapes in the entry "Forever Lost in Amsterdam" - a floating trip that's much less mood-specific than "Heroin" from the first album -blend with the backward pedal-steel progressions and rainbow keyboard coloring to create a Doorsy noir that makes the sophisticated sociological subject matter palatable. The Doors? "Yeah," Kennedy says. "I tried to play the organ parts the way Ray Manzarek would have."

Pressed to explain one especially weird and hard-to-peg riff in "Forever Lost," Bob Wlos says, "Oh, that's just a guitar plugged into a $50 amp. When we get a guitar sound, it's usually just five or ten minutes to come up with it. We never take a long time, we move on to something else."

There is something deeper, more mysterious, snaking through this album. Rooster Head stocks their songs with so much fodder for thought it's dizzying. When they write a somebody-done-somebody-wrong song, the adulterer cheats with a ghost; "Dancing with the Ghost (Marvin)" boils over with choice word choices set against a luge-paced rhythm and exhilarating sax runs (by Kennedy's cousin, Al Manascalco). "That was a pretty straight song," Wlos says. "We decided to make it scat. I came up with this bass line and put it on an open track - they didn't even know I did it. But when Michael and Pete heard it, they liked it. In this band, everyone is open to everyone else's ideas."

One idea the group opened up to was "Sally," the one song Kennedy didn't write and doesn't sing. "Sally" is a Pete Moss song (with writing contributions by Mike Chatham). The cut is a hook-slinging infecter that won't go away. With the vocals, Moss succeeds in yet another discipline to go with his mastery of drums, guitar, bass, keyboards. "There's not much to say about it," Moss says. "It's weird. It was written for a girl I was in love with. At that time it was a serious love song about the girl I love. Now that we're not together, it's bittersweet, reflective. It was a toughy for me, because it was the first time I stood up and said I was going to sing something from the heart. It made me nervous, and when it was done, it was a relief."

If there is a weak link on the album, it is "Sweet Triana," a simile-filled but nonetheless simple pop song in which Kennedy lets up on the mind warp lyricism. The band follows suit by marrying these relatively easy-on- the-brain lyrics to instrumentation that fails to contradict them for the sake of satire. In other words, it should by all rights be a Top 10 hit. "I don't know about it being a hit," says Moss. "That was the first thing we recorded, but over the course of recording, there were others I came to like more. It's hard to disassociate myself, because many of these songs have personal meanings."

"Field of Seven Aces" is acoustic-guitar and overdubbed-pedal-steel driven, a country groover that baffled his bandmates when Kennedy brought it to them: "I may wind up with a hole in my heart/Out in the cold begging for a new start/And I may end up with the sun on my skin/There at your door hoping you'll let me in." "I get notions," Kennedy explains. "I say these things, and don't realize what it means until a month later. The `Field of Seven Aces' might be L-7 studio, a place where dreams come true. I saw the movie Field of Dreams three times, and cried through it every time."

Pete Moss, who worked with Kennedy in the Eighties band Spanish Dogs, says, "In the ten or eleven years I've known Mike, I've never seen him use cross references the way he does on this album. Field of Seven Aces was a line out of `Marvin.' Bob said, `What the hell does it mean?' Mike says, `Nothing.' And Bob goes, `Well, if I know you, you'll come back with a song.' And sure enough he did."

With two long-play masterpieces in the can - An American Cock in Paris will be available to the public in a few weeks - Rooster Head members feel ready to sign to a major label to facilitate the national distribution their albums deserve. And they still haven't played a live show as Rooster Head. "Bob plays out live three or four nights a week [with different groups]," Kennedy says. "Pete plays out live a whole bunch. I used to do it every night. None of us are strangers to the stage. But I hated doing it, because it got old. Sometimes I wonder if it would help. I'd like to meet the people who are buying the records. We will do it - at our own pace. We want it to be right."  

Juggling schedules is the biggest obstacle to a Rooster Head concert. Kennedy has to keep in mind his day job. He works with the patients in the psychiatric unit of a Broward hospital. Group therapy, you know.


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